Didar Singh Ji
By S. Harjap Singh Aujla)
Bhai Didar Singh was a totally selfless (faqir) Kirtania,
who devoted his entire life to the singing of the Guru’s Hymns in
the finest classical traditions without seeking any monitory rewards.
He lived in poverty and died in poverty, without ever complaining about
his plight. Most of the modern day Sikhs have forgotten him completely,
but his merit as a maestro and his extreme simplicity deserves that his
story, as I understand it, must be told
During the sixties my father late S. Sochet Singh once attended a post
Akhand Path Kirtan programme in rural Hoshiarpur. He was a true connoisseur
of “Gurmat Sangeet” and was thoroughly impressed with the
sweet versatile voice of a blind black bearded young musician named Bhai
Didar Singh. After that cursory reference, I did not hear about this maestro.
He was never heard of in a “Kirtan Darbar”, or at any private
religious function. To me his name and faint memory remained dormant in
a remote corner of my brain for years to come.
Around 1983 someone in Vancouver gave me a tape with handwritten title
Bhai Didar Singh Raagi on its cover. On hearing an enchanting unheard
of voice, the old memories of my father’s words sprouted up again.
I once again recollected my father’s words of the late sixties.
The longest duration Shabad in the tape was entitled “Aappe bauh
bidh rangla, sakhiye mera laal”. It turned out to be a very professionally
rendered “Shabad” in difficult to peform “Guldasta”
format and it simply mesmerized me. I listened to this tape again and
again and was never tired of it. I made a spare copy of this tape to guard
against any damage to the original tape.
A few months later I met Giani Gurdip Singh ji, the then Head Priest of
Gurdwara Richmond Hill New York. This gurdwara was a de-facto place of
pilgrimage for all the Sikhs living North of Washington D.C. on the Eastern
seaboard of America. I made a casual mention of this newly obtained tape
to Giani Gurdip Singh ji. His eyes lit up. He was very knowledgeable and
he had already heard this tape. He told me that Darshan Singh Komal had
three highly accomplished “Shagirds” (pupils). Out of them
Bhai Dharam Singh Zakhmi was very comfortable in lower musical notes,
Bhai Beant Singh Bijli is more comfortable in higher notes, but Bhai Didar
Singh is so versatile, he moves at ease like a fish between the highest
and the lowest notes and does full justice to the intricacies of “Raaga”.
Bhai Gurdip Singh further said Bhai Didar Singh’s voice is something
similar to that of K.L. Saigal and Bade Ustad Ghulam Ali Khan. A few months
later I talked of Rabinder Singh Bhamra, the scholarly Vice President
of Gurdwara Richmond Hill New York, he told me that their Gurdwara management
has sponsored Bhai Didar Singh’s Jatha’s visit to New York
for the second half of 1984. Bhai Didar Singh at the head of a four man
Raagi Jatha came in October 1984. Sardar Tejinder Singh Kahlon, the long
time president of that gurdwara told me that Bhai Didar Singh will stay
in Gurdwara Richmond Hill New York for one and a half months and after
that I could take his Raagi Jatha to Gurdwara Bridgewater New Jersey.
I was thrilled to hear about the offer and on the appointed day I drove
this Jatha to Gurdwara Bridgewater sometime in December of 1985.
Gurdwara Richmond Hill New York is approximately eighty miles away from
Gurdwara Bridgewater New Jersey and it was a good two hours plus journey.
I had several questions to ask and Bhai Didar Singh had the answers. I
seated him on the front seat and his three companions Ajit Singh, Sarbjit
Singh and Sukhdev Singh were seated on the rear seats. I started the curious
conversation by asking about his initiation into classical music or “Gurmat
Sangeet”. Bhai Didar Singh told me that he being blind had a lot
of handicap, a blind man cannot read or write, so he was made to cram
up as much “Gurbani” as possible before attaining the age
of ten. By age twelve he had crammed up more than eight hundred “Shabads”.
These “Shabads” he still remembers and sings. Roughly at the
age of ten, he was initiated into classical music and by the age of fifteen
he had become adept in rendition of close to eighty “Raagas”
Bhai Didar Singh told me that learning a “Raaga” is the easy
part, its repeated “Riyaz” and sticking to its true character
like discrete application of “Komal” and “Teevar”
“Surs” is the most difficult part of its rendition. He told
me that he had been doing “Riyaz” for several hours everyday
till the age of twenty five, after that “hours of “Riyaz”
were curtailed and daily “Kirtan” in different “Raagas”
became a substitute for longer hours of “Riyaz”, but still
some “Riyaz” is necessary. Bhai Didar Singh told me that he
can proficiently play most of the “Taals” on “Tabla”.
In addition, he was groomed to play two string instruments “Sarangi”
His “Ustad” Professor Darshan Singh Komal trained him as a
versatile musician. Professor Darshan Singh Komal taught him to play a
difficult string instrument “Sarangi” with ease. According
to his tutor “Sarangi” was an instrument which could come
to his rescue during the worst of times. After imparting adequate knowledge
in singing and instrument playing, his “Ustad” established
him (Didar Singh) as the lead singer and he himself became his “Saathi”
Bhai Didar Singh lamented that since the nineteen sixties, the appreciation
and respect for real good musicians has been declining steadily. Those
with virtually no training and having uncultured voices, but possessing
good managerial skills, are in great demand. The genuinely good musicians
are always seen struggling and the not so good ones are flourishing. At
one extremely bad time in his life, the “Sarangi” indeed came
to his rescue. When no one wanted to listen to classical music, he improvised
a “Dhadi Jatha”. He himself became the “Sarangi”
player and two of his students became “Dhadi Singers”. This
hurriedly assembled rag-tag “Dhadi Jatha” became very popular,
in rural Punjab, within a very shortduration of time and this switch over
earned a lot more money that he could not earn as a professionally trained
“Kirtania”. He told me that he has brought a “Sarangi”
for this tour also. He confided to me that there may be some places in
America, where proper classical “Kirtan” may not find acceptance.
At such places “Sarangi” will come to his rescue. He told
me that his new companions on current tour Sarbjit Singh and Sukhdev Singh
have been trained as “Dhadis” and they can make good money.
I asked him as to why his voice has never been heard on the airwaves of
All India Radio. He told me that no body from the radio station ever approached
him and the idea of going uninvited to the radio station did not occur
to him. But he said some of the folks who took lessons in music from him
are now radio artists. Later on I did hear his voice from All India Radio
Jalandhar. In an answer to another question, Bhai Didar Singh said that
he has been invited every year to perform “Shabad Gayan” at
the famous “Guru Ram Dass Birth Anniversary Kirtan Darbar”
at “Gurdwara Manji Sahib” located within the Golden Temple
complex, but his “Shabad Kirtan” has never been broadcast
from the sanctum sanctorum of the Golden Temple. He said that some genuine
lovers of music in Punjab have really given him a lot of respect and he
is thankful to them.
Bhai Didar Singh was all praise for Late Bhai Samund Singh ji. According
to him Bhai Samund Singh was the only “Kirtania” who will
render all the “Shabads” in a “Chowki” in pure
classical formats, everybody else renders the first “Shabad”
in a classical “Raaga” and then switches to semi-classical
or light “Reets”. Bhai Didar Singh lived most of his lifein
village Nangal Khurd in Hoshiarpur District. On the death of his illustrious
“Ustad” Darshan Singh Komal, Bhai Didar Singh became the successor
of his legacy. Bhai Didar Singh continued to teach “Shabad Kirtan”
to the prospecting “Raagis”. Occasionally he visited foreign
lands too. In reply to another question, Bhai Didar Singh said that he
has a lot of admiration for the Rababi Kirtanias and they have certain
advantages too. Being musicians by profession, their kids are introduced
to “Pakka Raag” at very young ages. This grooming at an early
age gives them a lifelong advantage.
We did not know how two hours went by and how we reached the parking area
of Gurdwara Bridgewater. We were not sure of the “Sangat’s”
response to his voice and art. But contrary to our fears, the weekly Friday
and Sunday congregations at Gurdwara Bridgewater thoroughly appreciated
his “Kirtan Kala” and he was not compelled to use his “Sarangi”
as a “Dhadi” during any of the “Diwans”.Bhai Pargat
Singh, a long time resident of New York, is himself a very well trained
classical musician. Bhai Pargat Singh learnt proper classical music from
a highly accomplished classical maestro Master Rattan of Phagwara. He
is also a great connoisseur of all kinds of classical music. Bhai Didar
Singh was one of his most favourite “Kirtanias”. I invited
Bhai Pargat Singh to an evening “Kirtan Darbar” at Gurdwara
Bridgewater. He was asked to bring his string instrument “Taanpura”
too. He came with his musician family. Together they performed very melodious
“Kirtan”. After that he accompanied Bhai Didar Singh also
as a side musician and he was accompanied by his “Taanpura”.
This performance came out to be a historic event. I am glad I have been
able to preserve its transcript.
During a month long stay at Gurdwara Bridgewater, Bhai Didar Singh invariably
performed the first “Shabad” in pure “Khayali”
classical format and the subsequent “Shabads” were rendered
in “Reets” based on classical “Raagas”. I personally
made a number of recordings of his renditions. But before we could schedule
his repeat visit in 1989, he was already no more. He was diabetic and
no one in India got his heart checked up like we do in America. He died
before attaining the age of sixty. He is not physically with us but his
voice has been preserved for the unborn Sikh posterity. Bhai Didar Singh
was a masterly Sikh religious musician, who never got his due.
These recordings were contributed by a Kirtan Premi from Malaysia.